Michael Nowacki

An Interrogation Primer

You start by taking off his blindfold. You do it gently, careful not to jerk his head or neck. You untie the olive-green field dressing, filthy from the facial oils of countless other detainees. You look at him, and he looks at you, and you say, "Salaam alleikum," and he says, "Alleikum salaam." He looks young, maybe 20, tall and thin, with short hair and a short beard. He looks like any other young Iraqi - there is nothing remarkable about him. He is wearing an orange jumpsuit. You take the flex cuffs off so he can relax. Back up a few steps, now, "Smile," you say in English, and you smile at him. If he doesn't smile then you do something funny, make a funny face at him, to make him smile. Finally he either genuinely smiles or he fakes it - he's in no position to not smile for you. He must be thinking, "Why are you trying to make me smile? God knows what you are about to do to me."

You take one picture from the front and one of his left side profile. You shut the digital camera off, motion for him to sit down and have some water. The room contains one desk, three white plastic chairs, two water bottles, one pack of Miami brand cigarettes, and on the wall is a Rewards for Justice poster seeking information on surface-to-air missiles. You put the digital camera back in the office next door. You get a cup of coffee and the guy's file. You go back into the interrogation room. You toss the file on the desk like it is unimportant, which it is. There's absolutely nothing incriminating in it - but he doesn't know that. You tell the interpreter that he can go get a cup of coffee. He goes out of the room. You are alone with the detainee, who speaks no English. You speak very little Arabic. You ask his name. "Shismek?" He says Mohammed. You write it on your screening sheet. "Mohammed aysh?" He tells you his second name, and you write that down on your screening sheet. By this time, the interpreter is back in the room with a cup of coffee and some treats - candy or fruit, maybe even fresh dates from the kids who live on the other side of the wire, who, for a dollar, will scurry barefoot up the palm trees like monkeys to get them for you. The interpreter asks if he can give some treats to the detainee. You say sure. The detainee takes the treat and places it in front of him. He seems afraid to eat it. Maybe he thinks it's poisoned.

You ask your questions through the interpreter now. It is important to always speak to the detainee directly – it builds rapport. The interpreter, though important, should remain on the sidelines. You fill out all the blanks on your screening worksheet. Name, date and place of birth, address, cohabitants, employment, military service, education level, Sunni or Shia, mosque attendance, events at the time of arrest. Name is no problem, but never forget to ask for their nickname, the kunya, commonly referred to as the Abu Name. Iraqis seem to know their place of birth but not when they were born, and most don't celebrate birthdays. Address - usually something like, "By the abandoned school across from the highway." Cohabitants, usually there are so many you get sick of writing and you stop the guy and just put down "None." Employment is usually day labor, meaning unemployed, only the Iraqi men are too proud to say unemployed. Military service - everyone seems to have been in Saddam's army for some time, and everyone seems to have deserted at least once. Education level can be anywhere from grade school to graduate school. Sunni or Shia? Most of the time they look at you quizzically and say, "Why are you asking that?" As for mosque attendance, they usually downplay it but eventually admit to at least going on Friday. Events at time of arrest are where you run into problems. That is where it gets tricky.

Sometimes you get a guy who claims to have never fired a rifle, never fired any kind of weapon at all. He says he doesn't even know what a bullet looks like, much less an RPG. Sometimes you get a guy who says that he prays only on Friday, but not at the mosque. Sometimes you get a guy who says he's never been in a mosque in his life, never, never, never. Doesn't pray, drinks, smokes, womanizes. Hates Saddam, hates Muqtada al Sadr, hates Zarqawi, loves Bush. "Thank you, thank you, Mr. Bush," they all say. "Tell Mr. Bush I say thank you."

Sometimes you get a guy who all he says is "Wa'allah, wa'allah." "I swear to God, I swear to God. I didn't do it." Any question you ask him, that's what he says. Sometimes the guy just sits there and prays out loud. You let him go on and on, and then you ask him, what are you saying? What kind of prayers are those? And he tells you, and you ask him about his religion and eventually he says of course women should be stoned if they disobey you, and of course the Shia are apostates who should be either converted to the true path or killed. Sometimes you get a guy with the mental capacity of a four year-old, who doesn't know the name of his village, doesn't know how to get there, doesn't know anything, who calls Ray the interpreter his uncle, "Abbas, Abbas." Sometimes you get a guy who when you ask him who he lives with, says in Arabic, "My Aunt has big breasts." A guy who says that every time he sees a small child he wants to put the child in his stomach. A guy who tries to bite the air like a senile dog. A guy who was arrested for looking at two helicopters flying past and counting to himself, "One, two," as if a highly skilled insurgent spy would need to count to two out loud. A guy who has a scar across his forehead from a frontal lobotomy. A blind guy, a guy with one arm, one leg. A guy with elephantiasis whose balls are the size of grapefruit. A 94 year-old man. A 13 year-old kid.

The army field manual FM-34-52, entitled Intelligence Interrogations, tells you there are 17 "approaches" you can use on a person you are interrogating. Direct, Incentive, Emotional Love, Emotional Hate, Fear Up Harsh, Fear Up Mild, Fear Down, Pride and Ego Up, Pride and Ego Down, Futility, We Know All, File and Dossier, Establish Your Identity, Repetition, Rapid Fire, Silent, and Change of Scene.

In training, before you go somewhere like Iraq or Gitmo or Afghanistan, the army teaches you all these approaches. Instructors who have never performed an interrogation in the real world write out detailed scripts where every turn and twist in the story is outlined. Where if you don't use the Establish Your Identity approach at a certain place in the script, you get points deducted. Then you have training in counterintelligence investigations taught by people who openly admit to the class that they never saw a Top Secret document and never served a search warrant.

In training, it seems very clear-cut. If your detainee is a member of an oppressed minority, then you use the Emotional Hate approach to focus his hate toward the majority group that oppressed him, and away from you, the American interrogator who is holding him captive. If your detainee is high-ranking and distinguished, you use the Pride/Ego Up approach to make him think he is too valuable to waste sitting in a prison camp: "Once you start working more closely with us, we can set you up with your own Iraqi National Guard Division, General."

After sixteen weeks of training and studying the manuals, you are on your own to decide questions such as: Where does Pride/Ego Down end and Fear Up Harsh begin? How do you transition from Fear Up to Emotional? What do you do if the guy starts praying out loud? What do you do if the guy fakes a heart attack? What do you do if the guy just laughs at you? Do you slap him? What if you don't slap him? Do you just let him laugh at you? Nobody in your chain of command has done this before either, so you are on your own, in "the booth" with a real, live human being who is wearing an orange jumpsuit, to whom you can do absolutely anything you want, and as long as you don't brag about it and nobody rats you out, you can get away with it.

When you leave training and come to Iraq, you bring the manuals, plans, outlines, and notebooks the instructors said you would need, but you never get around to unpacking them. The manual's basic premise is that the person you are interrogating is an enemy, and knows something about enemy forces. In Iraq, nobody, not your commanders, not Rumsfeld, not Cheney, not even Bush can tell you exactly who your enemy is. You only know for sure they are the enemy if they are caught with weapons or explosives - hard evidence. But those are few and far between. More common are the cab drivers, the day laborers, college professors, policemen, guys detained just for walking down the street, guys who were snitched on. You have names for these kinds of detainees. You call them dirt farmers or jaywalkers, and their offense? You refer to it as DWI - Driving While Iraqi.

There can be guidelines for interrogation, but no rules. There is no science to it. There are no scripts. There are no plans. Most often, all you know is that your guy was detained because the grunts thought he was a little suspicious - better to err on the side of caution and detain him, then let the interrogators figure it out. You have five interrogations to do today, and a report to write for each one, 10 hours of work even if you half-ass it. You haven't called home in two weeks because at the end of the day you don't want to talk anymore. You would like to sleep for six hours but you know it will take you two of those hours just to fall asleep, since you can't stop imagining your own death from the nightly incoming mortar rounds. In your dreams you hear Arabic without understanding it. You have an hour with this guy to figure him out and either recommend that he go to Abu Ghraib Prison, or back to his family. But you really shouldn't complain, since at least you're not going out into sector everyday.

After the Abu Ghraib photos came out, the higher-ups created new strict and specific rules of engagement and standard operating procedures for the interrogators. These rules always existed, but nobody followed them, so they re-published them and called them new. The rules are necessary because most of the interrogators are young, under 25 years old, with no experience in the real world, no good judgment. Good judgment is useful, because it will deter you from doing things such as forming pyramids with naked detainees. The commanders and policy-makers feel uneasy about young sergeants and specialists doing interrogations. They believe they would be able to do the job better than you - but they are too busy with their other duties to even observe an interrogation, much less perform one.

You try to follow their rules, but it seems impossible at times. You would never torture people, but you know, sometimes you have to get a little rough with them, right? The rules say you cannot have any physical contact with a detainee. So, you can tell him that he will never see his infant son again because he's going to Abu Ghraib, but you can't put your arm around him when he cries? When you show him the pictures of the hostage he is accused of beheading, and he looks away, you can't force his head to look at it? You can't slap him across the face when he gives you a cocky grin? You can't shove him against the wall? You can't kick his chair out from under him?

After a while, you create your own personal code of conduct - common sense. Common sense is crucial, because most of the people coming into the detention facility seem innocent of what they are accused of. You should be able to determine if a guy is guilty or innocent within the first half hour. If he has good evidence against him, then you go into the interrogation assuming he's guilty. If he's caught red-handed, like the guys who shot RPGs at a convoy and kept the empty launchers, then it's pretty obvious. It's hard to deny a trunk full of still-warm, empty RPG launchers. No doubt he will have a wonderful story prepared for you, and all it takes is that one unexpected question to make the story unravel. Sometimes the story just doesn't make sense, like the 18-year old newlywed who spent four month's salary on walkie-talkies because he "just liked to play with them."

If a guy lies to you at all, you know he's guilty of something. Maybe not what he is accused of, but something. You might get a guy who is accused of being al Qaeda, or Tawhid wal Jihad, or of knowing Zarqawi personally - all the usual accusations. You know it's ridiculous because he's a Shiite from Sadr City, but your instinct tells you that he's hiding something. You go back and forth with him for a long time. You keep saying, "Look, I've been doing this for a while, I've interrogated hundreds of guys like you. I know you're not al Qaeda. But there's just something about you. I'm going to send you to Abu Ghraib if you don't tell me what's going on." Then he says, "I swear to God I have nothing. I love Bush." And you say, "Bullshit, I don't even love Bush, and I'm an American. In fact, I hate him. He sent me to this shit hole country. Tell me what's really going on." Finally he just gets sick of the exchange and tells you he and his brother-in-law run a counterfeiting business out of their home. And you send him to Abu Ghraib anyway.

Most of the time, the only thing your instincts tell you is that the guy is innocent. A dirt farmer, a Sunni living in a Shiite neighborhood - maybe someone informed on him because he looked at someone's sister, or cut in at the gas line, or wouldn't let someone else hook into his generator. Once you find out the guy is a DWI, a dirt farmer, or a jaywalker, you treat him politely. No need to make the man an enemy. Just get the basic data for the interrogation report and figure out how to explain his innocence. Or at least write your report in such a way as to suggest it is not reasonably feasible that the detainee is involved in anti-coalition activities. The army doesn't teach you how to judge people's guilt or innocence in half an hour. How could they? They don't tell you how to prove someone innocent either. After all, who could've predicted that you would ever have to do that? You have to learn through experience, or not at all. You'll see that some of your fellow interrogators can't or won't learn it, so they just say every detainee is guilty, that he showed signs of deception or became hostile during the interrogation. Later, after you've been home six months or a year, you might wonder if it would've been better for you if you just did as they did.

You'll see that in Iraq, because of lack of personnel, many of the interrogators are arbitrarily assigned to the job. The ones put in at random are actually better than the ones who volunteer to be an interrogator, though. With the volunteers, you get the sadistic types, people who want a power trip, people with something to prove. You might see that those who don't want to be in Iraq at all, who don't even want to be in the army, are very good at interrogation. They have the ability to develop rapport with the detainees like no one else. Who better to empathize with a prisoner than one who sees himself or herself as a prisoner in the same camp? Empathy is the approach that nobody teaches you in training. How can anyone be taught to be empathetic? It is not so easy for the ordinary soldier - this is why atrocities happen.

You are surrounded by these ordinary soldiers. Most of the grunts, even some of your fellow interrogators, are just typical, ordinary soldiers. They are there to fight a war, not make friends. They want to kick ass. Most are white, Christian, from rural communities, and subscribe to American Values, family values. They believe in law, order, and justice. Wanted: Dead or Alive. They believe Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. They sew NYPD and FDNY patches on the inside of their boonie caps. They support the president. They support the chain of command. Put yourself in the shoes of one of these ordinary, typical soldiers, and you can see how atrocities might happen: You are away from everything you love. You wish you were back in Alabama or Texas with your young wife. You are wondering what your young wife is doing right now. You are in a shit hole country, in a dirty room, sweating, sitting across from a dirty, smelly Arab in an orange jumpsuit. He has an unkempt beard and black eyes, and even though he is only 40, he seems ancient. Months later into your tour of duty, you might grow to love these people, but not right now - this is the first Arab or Muslim you have ever met. All you know about them is that they destroyed the World Trade Center. They behead people. They chant, "Death to America." They danced around the wreckage of your dead friend's humvee.

He reeks like something you have no comparison for, a smell you will identify later on in your tour as fear. You are here in this country, this situation, because of him. Your commanders told you during numerous "pep talks" that you are here to help the Iraqi people so they can have democracy and freedom, and you are protecting your own country, home, and family from attack by terrorists who want to destroy the American way of life. You believe your commanders. You trust in them. You are here in Iraq because some of these assholes just won't get with the program. They don't want people to be free, they want to bring back Saddam, or to impose Islamic Fundamentalism. And one of these assholes is here in the room with you, sitting across from you, and he's got a cocky look on his face. He seems proud that he's an insurgent, no, a terrorist. That's what he is, a terrorist, who would kill you right now if he had the chance. Empathy, sympathy, rapport, trust, Geneva Convention - you think all that is bullshit right now, created by the liberal, politically correct politicians who never served in the military. You have buddies out there who are getting blown up every day. You need to find out who is blowing up your buddies. This is war, remember? If you were captured, they would do the same to you. No, they'd do worse. It doesn't matter how you do it. Get the information. And that is how atrocities happen.

So, no matter how good of a person you were back home, you are in Iraq now, not the United States. Good and evil are different now. Sometimes to be good, you have to do things that are evil, right? You might have to lie, steal, maybe even hurt people. You might have to grab them by the neck and push them against the wall. You might have to scream at them like you've never screamed at another human being before. Or you might tell them they're going to be sent over to Egypt or Saudi Arabia, or the worst - the Iraqi Police - for questioning. "And you know, they're not going to be as friendly as I've been so far, so why don't you just answer the questions truthfully?" You sometimes might have to literally scare the shit out of them. You might have to make them urinate in their jumpsuit and then sit in it all day. Then you will have to look at the person and witness their fear and humiliation, knowing that you caused it. Will you be pleased with yourself?

More frequently, though, you will defend detainees you know are innocent, but everyone else thinks are guilty. Sometimes they might be guys who the Iraqi Police had already questioned, guys whose entire backs are just gigantic, purple bruises. Guys with two black eyes, feet covered in bruises. When you try to explain why you think these men are innocent, your commanders might say that you are a sympathizer, a "Haji-lover." "Whose side are you on, anyway?" they might ask. Even after one of your friends gets killed by an IED, they might ask you something like, "Do you think this is a joke? This is real. Our guys are getting killed every day out there."

During your tour, you might have to do a lot of things that you're not sure about. Not many of your peers will be able to give you any guidance. Many of them might come to you for guidance. What will you tell them? Do what you think is right, that's what you tell them. And for yourself, you have to tell yourself that too. Do what you think is right.

After you've been home for six months or a year, though, you might begin to wonder whether or not you did anything that was right. You might begin to think that it was all a waste. You should try to think of a few times when you did accomplish something. Remember the two truck drivers who were bringing all those 155 mm artillery rounds to the insurgents. Remember how you and Chris got them to give up their boss, Nasir. That was pretty worthwhile, right? Who knows what information Nasir gave when the other agencies interrogated him? He might have given up some other bad guys. All because the infantry guys captured two truck drivers and brought them in to you and Chris, who stayed up until four in the morning interrogating them and writing reports. That was something important that you played a little part in. That was something you did right, wasn't it?

But then you'll watch TV and you'll see that every day more kids are getting killed, most by IEDs. And you sit at home, your feet up on the coffee table, watching your digital cable while they die.

"Damn, that sucks," you might mutter to yourself as your wife sits next to you reading a magazine.
Your wife might look up from her magazine a moment, "Hm?"


You feel glad that you are not over there anymore, but also a little guilty. You might still have buddies over there. You might have buddies who are already on their way back for a second tour. You may think about joining them, re-enlisting. Even though you hated being there, part of you feels you belong there. You stay up late now, by yourself, going to army recruiting websites, or visiting the home pages of private security companies that are seeking veterans to go back to Iraq, for three times their previous salary. But then you browse the news on the web, and you see that the latest body count is up to 2,225. General Casey is saying that we have to stay until the Iraqi Army and Police are ready to take over the job themselves - which means we'll be staying forever. After a while, you wander off to websites that show IEDs, ambushes, and beheadings, and you watch these videos on your laptop screen until your eyes are tired and you can go to sleep. You don't want your wife to know what you've been up to, so you delete the web browser's history before you shut the computer off, and then the next day she jokingly asks you, "Why did you delete the history file, hmm? Were you looking at porn?"


Operation First Casualty ©Lovella Calica

Michael Nowacki

I joined the army in 1990, at 17, and served as an infantryman in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. I joined the Illinois National Guard in 1996 while in college, and served until 2006, when, shortly after returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom, I realized that the Army and I were better off without each other. It was a mutual breakup.

I served my time in Baghdad during 2004-2005 with the 10th Mountain Division, working as an interrogator at a Brigade Interrogation Facility. It was quite an interesting experience...so interesting, in fact, that it literally blew my mind.

I returned to peace in Chicago, Illinois, where I enjoy living each day.